Why Calling Your Intellectual Opponents “Deniers” Is Bad for Scientific Progress

Spread the love

Contentious scientific questions should be vigorously debated, not smugly shut down.

Image Credit Flickr-Adam FagenFollow | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

by Walter E. Block via Foundation for Economic Education

For a time, astronomers debated whether Pluto should be considered a planet or not. I have no views on this matter. None whatsoever. My knowledge of astronomy is rather limited. I know that the moon is up there somewhere. I still think that the Earth is flat; except for a few mountains and valleys it sure looks that way to my naked eye. But I’m willing to take everyone’s word on this issue. I don’t want to appear too stupid. This pretty much exhausts my knowledge of astronomy.

So, how will I decide the planetary status of Pluto? I’ll sit back and wait for the experts to come to a decision on this matter. Then, I’ll follow along, sheep-like. Why? That’s because I’m a strong believer in specialization and the division of labor. I know my limits.

But wait. Suppose the pro-Pluto is a planet (PPP) forces conducted themselves unfairly in their debate with their opponents. They called those on the other side “deniers.” They appealed to Twitter, Facebook, Amazon and the others of that ilk to cancel the anti-PPPers. The PPP people were in a position to get their opponents fired from their jobs as astronomers. They even sued them for providing “misinformation.”

As a non-astronomer, I would still know nothing substantively about this field. Would the ascribed PPP behavior change my viewpoint? You can bet your telescopes it would. I would now oppose PPP.

I have previously established my non-astronomical credentials. To repeat, I am a know-nothing, and proud of it (I’m having enough trouble keeping up with economics and the libertarian philosophy). How, then, as a rational person, can I take any position on this technical issue which has stumped many real-life professionals in the field?

I’ll tell you how. I would reason that if the PPPers had logic and evidence on their side, they would not have resorted to such scurrilous tactics. They would instead have relied upon the astronomical evidence to speak for itself. That they felt the need to hit below the belt intellectually, so to speak, in such a manner would have indicated that their case was flimsy.

What has any of these contrary to fact conditionals have to do with anything? The actual PPPers are certainly not guilty of any of these tactics.

However, the greens are. In the 1970s, their complaint was that global cooling was the threat, and the fault was capitalism. In the 1990s the indictment was global warming and again free markets were the culprit. Then, in this century the sky-is-falling folk shifted gears once again and charged free enterprise with temperature change which would undo mankind. The only constant was the verdict: private property rights and economic freedom are evil. The indictment kept changing. Presumably, in a decade or two from the present, space aliens will conquer us. Again, this will be blamed on laissez-faire capitalism.

Have the greens called their opponents “deniers.” Yes.

Have they tried to get them fired from their jobs? You can bet they have. Lawsuits? Yes, that too.

I happen to know a lot more about weather conditions than I do about astronomy. At least twice as much; double almost zero ain’t much. I know enough to realize that weathermen, who predict temperature and other such conditions a day or two or a week in advance, continually make errors. Climatologists forecast climate decades or centuries in advance. One would think they would exhibit more modesty than they do. But one can readily understand why they do not: they are rarely proven wrong; the long run extends beyond their life expectancy.

I oppose the green side of this debate for the same reasons I employed in the PPP case. If these folks had the facts on their side, they would not have felt the need to employ such underhanded tactics. Since they did indeed do so, this constitutes prima facie evidence that their claims are bogus. Even non-experts can take this to the bank.

The same considerations apply to the enforced vaccinators, those who compel mask wearing, the social-distance coercers, the jab or job imposers. They claim to rely on science, but the earmark of that discipline is open-ended debate. Threatening physicians who disagree with license removal, and epidemiologists with job loss, simply has no role in the scientific endeavor.

Is it possible that the greens, the imaginary PPPers, and the COVID imperialists are correct substantively, and that their fair-minded opponents are mistaken? Of course. But the only rational position for non-experts is either to hold no position on these matters whatsoever, or to incline toward those who abide by the Marquis of Queensberry methods in intellectual pursuits.

Author: Walter E. Block is an American economist and anarcho-capitalist theorist who holds the Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair in Economics at the J. A. Butt School of Business at Loyola University New Orleans. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.

Reprinted with permission from Foundation for Economic Education